Desegregation Essay

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Desegregation entered the standard American English lexicon in about 1951 to describe the process of removing racial and other minorities from isolation or sequestration in society. The related terms segregation and integration are found in sixteenth-century texts and have broader generic meanings that require contextual understanding. Using the modern civil rights movement as the context with which to frame an understanding of these terms can provide the means for critical analysis of relevant issues. This entry reviews the context in which desegregation became policy, examines its progress in the particular instance of schools, and looks at the larger question of whether desegregation is necessary to achieve equality.

Historical Context: Overview

From the beginning of intergroup contact among Europeans, Africans, indigenous Americans, and Asians on American soil, there has been an ongoing struggle for human rights and later civil rights between the dominant and subordinate groups. Desegregation was but one aspect of the modern civil rights movement that looked to the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Supreme Court decisions, and related state and federal legislation for support to fuel its goal of equal opportunity and social justice for all U.S. citizens.

Desegregation should not be confused with social integration; they are not the same. Desegregation relies on quantitative measurements to determine effectiveness, whereas social integration is assessed qualitatively according to the degree to which differentiated pairs and groups express bonding and commonality, as in friendships, marriages, and organizational memberships. A school may in fact meet the quantitative standards of desegregation—that is, no single group comprises more than 50 percent of the student body and at least one other group is 25 percent—but fail to meet the qualitative standards of social integration because students attend separate proms and exercise minimal contact with one another outside of the classroom. The legacy of American slavery, White supremacy, and Jim Crow apartheid appears to continue to determine school outcome profiles despite legal and political efforts to promote both desegregation and social integration.

Efforts to “racially” desegregate American society were made in virtually all areas of society, including but not limited to schools, housing, employment, the military, criminal justice, entertainment, sports, and public service. Current research and statistical evidence indicates that the success of these efforts is mixed at best. For example, several scholars note that American schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954, when the Supreme Court declared that separate schools were inherently unequal, and in 1955, when schools were admonished by the same Court to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.”

After overcoming massive resistance to court ordered busing and other strategies to get Black and White students into the same classrooms, schools seem to have reached a peak of quantitative desegregation and now are experiencing a reverse trend toward resegregation. In retrospect, it seems that the vagueness of the 1955 “all deliberate speed” mandate has encouraged school districts to deliberate long and act slowly as a form of resistance to desegregating their schools.

Court Rulings And Social Response

When the Supreme Court rendered the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and its companion ruling in 1955, it officially ended the era of Jim Crow apartheid ushered in by the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy was a case involving interstate travel that set the precedent that separate facilities for Blacks were constitutional so long as they were not inferior to White ones. It was not long before the “separate but equal” doctrine was quickly extended to cover many areas of public life, such as restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools. The Brown case was a suit that specifically argued against segregated schools, establishing that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal; it initiated a protracted struggle to desegregate transportation systems, park facilities, retail establishments, water fountains, and other public venues.

At the time of the 1954 decision, laws in seventeen Southern and border states and the District of Columbia required that elementary schools be segregated. Four other states had laws permitting segregation. While segregation and school discrimination existed in other parts of the nation, law did not sanction it. As expected, the most violent and heated resistance to desegregation came from many of the Southern states. Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas is noted for his open defiance of federal orders to desegregate schools in Little Rock in 1957. He called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine Black students from entering Central High School. President Eisenhower responded by sending federal troops to enforce the Court order.

In 1958, Virginia chose to close nine schools in four counties rather than desegregate them, prompting Virginia and federal courts to rule these moves illegal. In 1962, two people were killed when James Meredith opposed Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett and attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. Another governor who became famous for his resistance to desegregation was George Wallace of Alabama. He stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama in a failed symbolic attempt to prevent two Black students from enrolling there in 1963.

Even in the North, Black parents had to file a lawsuit in 1960 against the school system of New Rochelle, New York, because of its policies permitting racing segregation. In 1961 a federal judge ordered the schools to be desegregated. Black parents in other cities had to do the same to get full access to their public schools. Boston, Massachusetts, long a haven of intellectual progressivism, as late as 1974 had White members of its community exposed on national television in riot mode, fighting court orders against busing and school desegregation.

Television was still in its infancy during the 1950s and early 1960s, but cameras captured a good deal of the chaos and vitriol directed at freedom fighters who upset the status quo by attempting to fulfill recent court orders aimed at desegregating public life. Archival footage shows how racist taunts, spitting, rock throwing, dog attacks, and fire hose power were used to create fear and intimidation among those in the Black community who tried to desegregate schools and other public facilities. Some even credit television with giving the civil rights movement much needed momentum because the country and even the world got to see how Black citizens were being treated in a free democratic society such as that of the United States.

Affirmative Action And Legal Response

A number of court cases have arisen over the decades since Brown that depart from debates specifically aimed at desegregating school systems and institutions of higher education to become debates arguing issues of affirmative action and diversity. Critical to the analysis of theses cases is the important distinction between mandatory K–12 public education and competitive admissions into postsecondary public and private colleges and universities. Any institution that accepts federal funding such as financial aid for students is subject to federal legislative rulings used to guide access to equal educational opportunity.

In the mid-1970s, Allan Bakke, a White graduate student, filed suit against the California Board of Regents, charging reverse discrimination and arguing that affirmative action programs were responsible for denying him admission to the University of California at Davis medical school and thus violating his Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the Constitution. The case reached the Supreme Court and was settled in 1978 in a split 5–4 decision in favor of Bakke. The decision allowed affirmative action policies to continue but with a caveat: racial quotas were to be eliminated and race-based admissions allowed only when other factors were used to determine qualifications for acceptance.

The assaults against affirmative action and other diversity initiatives since Bakke have increased. Scholarships and other financial incentives earmarked for underrepresented groups are challenged for being discriminatory against Whites. Some legal analysts have touted the 2003 Michigan affirmative action case Grutter v. Bollinger as a plan to minimize the importance of race while offering maximum protection to Whites. Affirmative action was once lauded as a means to achieve institutional desegregation and redress past discrimination and denial of equal educational opportunity against Blacks and other students of color; the tenor has changed to now view affirmative action as a tool to facilitate institutional diversity with less regard to the social barriers created by the historical legacy of racial bias.

Colorblind Policy

When Justice John Harlan declared in his lone dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 that “Our Constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” he unwittingly gave support to the current conservative position advocating colorblindness as the future of American policy. Those in favor of colorblind approaches to policy argue that taking cognizance of racial group membership is illegitimate and likely to lead to further discrimination and reinforces the perceived inferiority of people of color. They also believe that a once unfair system has been made fair and that continued recognition of race disrupts the mechanisms now in place to insure equality and equity. Opponents of colorblind approaches to policy argue that ignoring race is the antithesis of fairness and obstructs the creation of mechanisms needed to achieve equality and equity.

The American tradition suggests that in the United States justice is administered to all citizens without regard to race or skin color. The historical and statistical evidence suggests otherwise. Scholarly research on equal educational opportunity should help us understand how and why racial segregation has persisted in spite of federal and state decrees making racially discriminatory schooling illegal. Contemporary movements toward colorblindness and meritocracy, which emphasize individual merit without consideration of group membership, appear to frustrate desegregation efforts and diversity initiatives. Elementary and high school resegregation and increased postsecondary competition for coveted admissions point to America’s dilemma of legal and cultural contradiction.

A pluralist society believes that different cultural groups can maintain their integrity and still enjoy equality with the dominant culture. Actually achieving true pluralism in American democratic society will require an effective reconciliation of the movement from liberal to conservative legal rulings with the movement from conservative to liberal sociocultural values. Whereas most Americans no longer believe in legal segregation, de facto segregation is allowed to develop unopposed or is responded to with weak policies that are unable to reverse it.

Equality Without Integration?

So the larger philosophical question is whether racial equality is achievable without racial integration. Critics of school desegregation, both Black and White, have argued that court-enforced desegregation efforts were unnecessary and maybe even self-defeating. Many Blacks would have been satisfied if the state had made more of an effort to ensure that their schools were on a par with the White schools when it came to teacher’s pay, student resources, and funding. These Blacks had little interest in having their children sit next to White children just for the sake of it. However, they saw the futility in trying to get the state to make their schools “equal” to White ones and thought it easier to “integrate” White schools, thereby giving their children access to the better facilities and resources.

The downside of Brown and its legacy was that thousands of Black teachers and principals throughout the South lost their jobs and were never absorbed into the newly desegregated schools. White resistance to highly qualified Black teachers and administrators teaching and having administrative capacity over their children was clear. Poorly maintained Black schools were shuttered and some razed along with the memories of alumni who had attended them. Communities that regarded their schools as central features had to reconceptualize their understanding of and connection to schools. Desegregation is also blamed for the loss of Black businesses and loss of community cohesiveness in all Black towns and segregated urban neighborhoods.

America’s commitment to a desegregated society is evidenced by legal policy and politically correct social policy. The means by which America has sought to achieve desegregation has been painful for many people, and the verdict is still out on the best way to get the job done. One thing is clear: The desegregation story must be recounted with bold accuracy. Sanitized and revisionist accounts will not enable scholars to help answer many of the unanswered questions or resolve many of the unresolved issues. So when contemporary students read textbooks that fail to mention that the plaintiffs and the attorneys in the Brown v. Board decision were Black or that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had argued a number of cases around the country that led to Brown, then the foundation upon which critical analysis is built is weaker. Crediting the federal government as a benevolent innovator of actions initiated and nurtured by Blacks and their White allies disempowers people who believe that power belongs to the people and the way to social change is through the people.


  1. Anderson, J. D. (2006). Still desegregated, still unequal: Lessons from up North. Educational Researcher, 35(1), 30–33.
  2. Armor, D. (1995). Forced justice: School desegregation and the law. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Bankston, C. J., III, & Caldas, S. J. (2005). Forced to fail: The paradox of school desegregation. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  4. Bell, D. (2004). Silent covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Menkart, D., Murray, A. D., & View, J. L. (2004). Putting the movement back into civil rights teaching: A resource guide for classrooms and communities. Washington, DC: Teaching for Change.
  6. Morris, V. G., & Morris, C. L. (2002). The price they paid: Desegregation in an African American community. New York: Teachers College Press.
  7. Ogletree, C. J. (2004). All deliberate speed: Reflections on the first half-century of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: W. W. Norton.
  8. Wolters, R. (1989). Segregation, integration, and pluralism: Approaches to American race relations. History of Education Quarterly, 29(1), 123–130.

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